Dispatches From The Road: The Unaccompanied Children of Uganda’s Refugee Crisis

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It comes as no surprise that the vast majority of South Sudanese refugees coming into Uganda are women and children. For the past few years trends and data from the region have shown that when violence breaks out, the men stay behind. However, perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and forgotten demographics of this statistic are the unaccompanied minors. Young boys and girls who flee their villages alone, or lose a guardian along the way.

In my trips to refugee camps, and in interviews with relief workers, it became clear that children who left without their families – or lost them along the way – will face a dangerous uphill battle. That’s because, as it was explained to me, they have so few real protections. Refugee aid workers can offer their best of care, but with the sheer numbers of unaccompanied minors flowing over the border, it’s impossible to keep an eye on them all.

And the numbers, I learned, were staggering.

According to the UNHCR, “Children have been separated from their families on an unprecedented scale. Over 34,000 separated or unaccompanied children have been registered, representing 10%, of the total number of refugee children in some of the countries of asylum.” These statistics are staggering from a humanitarian perspective, which UNHCR goes on to point out, “With almost 70% of the refugees from South Sudan and Sudan under the age of 18, both conflicts are nothing less than a war on their children.”

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Interviews with workers at refugee centers highlight the humanity of refugees – who despite lacking their own resources – often take on unaccompanied children under their wing, at least until they reach Uganda.

Catherine Ntabadde with UNICEF told me that unaccompanied children are targeted first for special care. She says that education tents and a group of rotating psychosocial workers have been deployed in Northern Uganda’s refugee centers and camps. However, unaccompanied minors still face an increased threat of sexual and gender based violence as well as increased risk of exploitative child labour practices.

Aid agencies are working to register these children and ensure that unaccompanied refugees are offered all proper protections. Yet with overflowing camps forcing many refugees to move on a moment’s notice – unaccompanied children can too easily fall through the cracks.

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The UNHCR says that legal framework and enhanced policy must be enacted to ensure children are well cared for under these refugee programs. It also encourages monitoring and reporting to enhance our current data on the crisis.

Yet on ground participation from local communities, offering some semblance of normal life is a must for recovery. This includes access to schooling, a safe home life and a team of advocates to ensure that the most vulnerable, among an already dispossessed population, have a place to call home.

ICC Hears Groundbreaking Case on Timbuktu’s Cultural Destruction

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A groundbreaking case at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is underway, prosecuting a former Islamist rebel for the destruction of cultural sites in Timbuktu. The man at the center of the case, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, has pleaded guilty to the act of war crimes for the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque at the UNESCO Heritage Site.

The case is the first of its kind at the ICC – which in the past has only prosecuted individuals for crimes against people and communities. It is also the first time that someone on trial has ever pleaded guilty.

Mahdi told the court, “I am really sorry, I am really remorseful, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused. I would like to give a piece of advice to all Muslims in the world, not to get involved in the same acts I got involved in, because they are not going to lead to any good for humanity.”

The court will proceed with the case and if found guilty Mahdi could face up to 30 years in prison.

Amnesty International has spoken out about the case, saying that it sets a precedent for those involved in cultural destruction, “Attacks against religious and historical monuments violate cultural rights and can cause significant harm to the local and sometimes broader communities. They are war crimes and those suspected of carrying out such attacks should be prosecuted.”

However they were also quick to point out that there are numerous human victims in Mali who still deserve justice: “We must not lose sight of the need to ensure accountability for other crimes under international law, including murder, rape and torture of civilians that have been committed in Mali since 2012.”

The attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage in 2012 was done by Ansar Eddine, a mostly Tuareg Islamist group that took part in Mali’s northern wars. Linked to Al Qaeda, they invaded the Timbuktu area in March 2012, imposed Sharia law on the inhabitants who lived there, and set about destroying numerous cultural heritage sites.

Why Did Islamists Destroy Islamic Heritage Sites?

It might be confusing as to why an Islamist group would go after, and destroy certain areas of Timbuktu. After all the famed city was the center of Islamic learning and scholarship from the 13th-17th century. It not only helped spread Islam throughout West Africa, but contributed hundreds of thousands of books and cherished manuscripts throughout the world.

However, Ansar Eddine follow a particularly strict brand of Islam that considers it idolatry to keep mausoleums to ‘worship’ prominent Sufi members. But this isn’t an issue that ends with the sectarian divide between Sunni and Sufi. This is a tradition that stretches back to Abd al-Wahhab – the father of Wahhabism which is practiced in Saudi Arabia. He famously destroyed numerous shrines and burial sites of venerated members in Islam as he blazed his way through Arabia during the 1700s.

As the al-Saud family rose to power and Saudi Arabia was born, they adopted his potent brand of religious fanaticism, including his penchant for destroying any perceived form of “idolatry.” In fact, as recently as last year, a proposal to remove the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s tomb and bury him in an unmarked location sparked massive controversy within the country.

Many are now pointing to the cultural destruction meted out by the Islamic State, in its recent destruction of cultural sites in Iraq and Syria, including the ancient site of  Palmyra. If this ICC case proves successful it could set a path that would bring those responsible for destroying Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage to trial. And although it’s important not to lose sight of the human victims of these movements, it is important that insurgencies around the world see that the destruction of thousands of years of heritage will not take place with impunity.

Photo Credit: Emilio Labrador Santiago/Wikimedia

Original Publication: Care2

Officials Scramble to Contain Cholera at Refugee Center in Uganda

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At the Elegu Refugee Reception Center, children mill through their belongings. The vast majority of new arrivals have been women and children. 

Officials in northern Uganda say dozens of cholera cases have been reported at a reception center for South Sudanese refugees. Cholera is an infectious disease usually spread through contaminated water that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration. Left untreated it can lead to death. Health officials are using cholera kits and increasing screenings to try to stop the spread of the disease. But between overcrowding and ongoing heavy rains, this could prove challenging.

Over the weekend, officials confirmed that 45 cases of cholera were discovered in the Pagirinya refugee reception center in northern Uganda. Although officials say most have been quarantined and treated, it comes at a time when resources are already strained and overcrowding in refugee settlements is a massive concern.

Over 80,000 South Sudanese refugees have come to Uganda since fighting erupted in Juba last month. Pagirinya holds nearly 28,000 refugees, well above its capacity.

Irene Nakasiita with the Ugandan Red Cross says the outbreak did not take them by surprise.

“We expected it actually, we have always expressed fear,” Nakasiita said. “Especially when the weather changed. We already anticipated it and put up measures in place. So as much as it has broken out at least it’s being managed. And if we weren’t prepared probably the numbers would have been higher and maybe some people would have even have died already.”

The Ugandan National Meteorological Authority has predicted above average rainfall in northern areas of the country until the end of August. This has stoked fears of water-borne illnesses continuing to spread.

The Ugandan Red Cross says incoming arrivals are all being screened for cholera before being sent to Bidi Bidi, a new refugee settlement able to house around 100,000 new arrivals. In addition, increased testing of water sites, door-to-door cholera education campaigns and monitoring of symptoms has been stepped up.

However, budget shortfalls continue to be a problem. According to relief group the Norwegian Refugee Council, aid groups have only received 20 percent of the funds needed to adequately care for new arrivals.

Tuesday, the Ugandan prime minister’s office, the U.N. World Food Program and the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR announced that due to a lack of funds, food rations would be cut…Read More

Burundi Peace Talks End in Stalemate – Uganda Statehouse

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The Burundi opposition as a moment of prayer is called before commencing peace talks.

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The Burundi government as a moment of prayer is called before commencing peace talks.

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Members of the Burundi opposition take notes before the meeting begins.

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The Burundi opposition listens in as President Museveni speaks. Museveni focused on the meaning of sovereignty during times of violence.

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President Yoweri Museveni listens as the Burundi government says they are battling with insurgents inside the country.

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Alain Nyamitwe, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Burundi, says the Burundi government will not attend the next meeting in Arusha without consensus.

Street Harassment in Uganda: Maybe this is why it is so under-reported?

Such a frustrating and common occurrence. Remember ladies, please mind your p’s and q’s when being assaulted and harassed.

AND: Blog

Credit: Jennifer Robinson Kampala/Jinja Road. Credit: Jennifer Robinson


Our blogger this week, Lindsey, recalls her frustrating and fruitless attempt to report the type of street harassment that is experienced on a daily basis by women in Kampala.

By Lindsey Kukunda


Ugandan Journalist Patience Akumu once wrote about her experience being sexually harassed in Kampala’s Owino market. When she poured a bucket of water over her attacker, she was surrounded by furious witnesses, accusing her of over-reacting.

My visit to the police post in the taxi park to report sexual harassment recently left me being interrogated for ‘misbehavior’ regarding my response to my attackers. It also left me wishing I could do what Patience had done. Taken justice into my own hands.

I was about to cross the road, passing by the boda boda* and bicycle stage and from experience could tell that one of them was about to try something with me. Sure enough, I…

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Phoebe Tansley: Attacked Not Defeated

Great story about a lovely friend and the work she’s doing here.

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One girl’s story of tackling sexual violence in Africa.

Famous figures and celebrities such as Michelle Obama and Sean Penn have recently joined the ‘Bring back our girls’ campaign, fighting for the return of 276 girls kidnapped from their school in Nigeria. Islamic militants Boko-Haram took responsibility for the abducting the girls on April 14th and have said they will sell the girls on as slaves for ‘£7.’

One individual who is all too aware of the struggles that women face in Africa, is 23-year-old Phoebe Tansley. After working as a volunteer in one of the poorest nations in world, she witnessed first-hand the struggle women in Uganda face to be treated equally by their male peers. Phoebe has since set up a charity called ‘Attacked Not Defeated’ to support victims of sexual violence.

Phoebe was based in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, initially working for…

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